FIT's Queer Fashion Symposium: Highlights From Day 1

“What is queer fashion?” is the question I spend most of my days trying to answer, and what brought me to New York for the Queer History of Fashion Symposium as part of the Queer Fashion exhibit at the FIT. The academics, designers, story tellers, and humorists I saw today all had a perspective to share. And I was excited to see so many people of all ages joining the discussion.

Simon Doonan, designer and creative ambassador for Barneys New York told the story of coming to the states from London in the 70s and not being allowed a green card because he was gay. He said that for him and his counterparts, marginalization caused creativity. He used the term “creative rage” and believed that marginalization from being gay affected his work. I enjoyed this explanation coming near the beginning of the symposium, because marginalization was largely what queerness meant to me when I was first coming out as a kid. But now it means so much more too.

James Gager of MAC Cosmetics talked about MAC’s interest in helping people be themselves, only “a little more beautiful.” He’s done campaigns with several gay and drag icons, including RuPaul and K.D. Lang. It seems to him that queer fashion is based around self expression.

John Bartlett, known for his rugged American designs, showed us images of his work and inspirations. Some of his work stemmed from the bear style (burly gay men with lumberjack and campy outfits). He also showed us images celebrating the male body. I took away that gay fashion for him was a celebration of men and being male, and appreciating the male body. 

Dr. Monica L. Miller explored Janelle Monae’s tux. It’s a uniform that challenges expectations of gender and sexuality, a container for her energy, a garment that blurs class lines, a challenger of notions of blackness, a superhero uniform, armor, among many other things. I took away that the tux is queer because of its history and the empowering message it sends when Monae wears it. It seems that for Monae, what makes it queer is just as much about race and class as it is about gender and sexuality.

In conversation, Steele asked Fran Lebowitz (who I now understand to be the funniest woman alive), “Why are there gay fashion designers?” to which she replied, “Are you serious? Why are there straight designers?” Her timing sent the audience into ruptures of laughter. She continued, “Wait… really? You’re an educator!” As a humorist, she didn’t explicitly tell us what she meant, but somehow I got it. Fashion is all about self expression, and as queers who’ve spent much of our time hiding our identity, self expression seems like the next best step. And what better way to do it than through close contact with beautiful people walking the runway?

Hal Rubenstein’s “Do Gay Clothes Have More Fun” lecture was as lively as the title. He believes that any clothes worn by a gay person are gay clothes. As he put it, clothes in stores aren’t any gayer than the hooks they’re hanging on, but as soon as they’re in his closet, they are gay. He believes that great fashion is about dressing from the inside out. “This leather feels sensational,” he commented as he showed off his leather ensemble by his friend Gianni Versace. So to him, gay clothes are about… being gay, and loving being gay. Expressing oneself from the inside out. He pointed out that Versace’s construction inside the clothes was just as good as the outside. Seducing people. He believes that you don’t have to spent $1,500 on a silk shirt to seduce people (but soft fabric certainly helps).

So I have some answers to my question: Queer fashion is creativity stemming from marginalization, subverting norms, self expression, and simply being queer. But like most wonderful things, I’m also sure that the more I attempt to answer this question, the more questions I’ll have! Tonight I’m getting together with Anita Dolce Vita of dapperQ and Winter Mendelson of Posture Mag to film a little vid talking more on the subject. So keep your eyes out for another post tomorrow, and a video later on.

Related posts: Interview with Valerie Steele, Curator of the Queer History of Fashion Exhibit at FIT

A Queer History of Fashion: From The Closet To The Catwalk at The Museum at FIT runs though January 4th, 2014. View more on the exhibition website. The second day of the symposium takes place tomorrow from 9 to 5.